The coronavirus pandemic is scary and is changing our entire way of life in sudden, drastic ways. Nevertheless, in time, it too shall pass. When it does, we need to think carefully about what we want to return to. There is a lot of emphasis right now on a “return to normal,” but is “normal” really what we want?
Sure, lots of bad things have come out of the coronavirus pandemic, but to return to our previous life, taking none of the good things that have come out of this with us, and with no lessons learned would be the ultimate form of folly. One particularly obvious case of this is the airline industry. If you had told someone a few months ago that we were going to suddenly shut down the entire airline industry, they would have laughed at you, told you we couldn’t possibly do that. But we did. The coronavirus showed us that we could do “the impossible.”
This is important because immediate and major societal changes are what we need to combat global warming, which poses a danger far more deadly than the coronavirus threat. Airline emissions are projected to, if left unchecked, eat up the entire worldwide CO2 budget. Even if we stopped carbon emissions from every other source, air travel alone would push us over the critical two degrees Celsius tipping point for catastrophic climate change.
So why can we make this kind of a sudden change for the coronavirus emergency, but not the climate one? After all, climate change will be far more deadly to humans and damaging to the economy? There are two main reasons. One, unlike the coronavirus, rich people will remain relatively unaffected by the climate crisis, at least at first. The cities flooded beneath the rising seas will be those in developing countries that can’t afford the massive tidal barriers required to protect them. Small island countries will just disappear from the map completely, with little recourse for the inhabitants. When hurricanes hit, the rich will rebuild, and the poor will be left homeless. Farmers in rich countries may be able to compensate for extended droughts with deep wells, reservoirs, and irrigation systems. Those that depend on the rain will starve.
Second, although the climate crisis is underway as we speak, the worst effects of it have not yet come to bear, and we are entirely unprepared. Just like we were unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic. SARS and MERS gave us plenty of warning that something like this was possible, and health officials have been warning us for years that our medical system is not equipped to deal with a major outbreak, yet we did nothing.
Tragically, being prepared is not politically glamorous. It isn’t something that politician’s constituents can hold in their hand when they go to the polls at the end of their term. We shouldn’t be all that surprised to see our representatives doing little to prepare us for the trials of the future. After all, many of them are old, and thus unlikely to be forced to face the full consequences of their decisions. Even those that are young have little incentive to invest in the future. They need to produce results now or lose their job. This is not a fault of the politicians, nor one of the system. It is the fault of all of us for not being scared enough. Not being scared enough of the possibility of a pandemic, and similarly, not being scared enough of climate change.
As such, when the president of the United States signs away $25 billion of taxpayer funds to the airline industry, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we are learning from our mistakes. Many people do good, hard work in the airline industry, and we need to support them, but at the same time, to protect all of our futures, we need to stop flying. For emergencies, sure, we should fly. For funerals, distant weddings, maybe. But trade shows? Vacations? Business conferences? No. COVID-19 is showing us that we, as a society, can stop flying. We just need to be willing to do it.